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Category: Critical Thinking

Subcategory: Psychology

Level: College

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

The Psychology of Cults and Radical Groups
On the November of 1978, about 900 members of the Peoples Temple perished in a mass suicide-murder in what came to be known as the Jonestown Massacre. The Peoples Temple was an American cult group formed by Jim Jones. Located in Guyana, the Peoples Temple saw the death of hundreds of followers after their leader Jim Jones ordered them to ingest a poison-laced drink. In 2014, the world was treated to a shocking video of US journalist James Foley being beheaded. This was followed by other beheadings. The person identified as the executor was a British man called Mohammed Emwazi or Jihadi John. In the coastal part of Kenya, a Briton known as Thomas Evans was among Al-shabab terrorists killed by Kenyan forces after attempting to break into a military camp. The plot of the three stores is the same. Normal people end up joining dangerous groups such as radical groups or cults. Many people would wonder why such people would abandon their normal lives for such causes. However, many people do join these groups and it is therefore to establish factors that influence this. Is it the individual or is it influence from such groups? This paper examines the relationship between personality and social psychology and induction into cults and radical groups.
Both personality and social psychology seek to understand the social behavior of people as they go about their daily lives. Personality psychology specializes in establishing the differences among people. Social psychology seeks to establish how people are common and how different situations can affect the behaviors of such people. Funder (2007) defines personality as an individual’s characteristic patterns of emotion, behavior and thought, and the psychological mechanisms responsible for these patterns. This is why one person will claim to be an extrovert while another claims to be an introvert. However, human beings live in a society where social groupings are a common occurrence. These groupings can be characterized by various factors such as religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or shared ideals. As such, people’s behaviors are not only influenced by their individual traits, but also the inclinations of the societies they live in. For example, a person born to Christian parents will most likely pick up the Christian doctrine. However, as the child grows, he or she might pick up other inclinations from interactions with other people. In joining radical groups such as Al Qaeda or ISIS or cults, both personality and social factors play a role.
Why People Join Radical Groups or Cults
Radical groups and cults are defined by the ideological-doctrinal aims that they set out to achieve. These are usually salvation of humanity or liberation of the people. However, as good as their aims are, such groups adopt violent and abusive methods in achieving them. Such groups are usually successful in recruiting people into their fold. For example, 3 teenage British girls were arrested in Turkey while in an attempt to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. Psychologically, such groups exploit personalities of people by offering a sense of fulfillment. According to Horgan (2005), people who are attracted to cults and radical groups in many cases happen to be disaffected loners. They capitalize on an individual’s sense of identity. For example, according to Mullen (2015), many of ISIS recruits are disillusioned teenagers who seek to find their purpose and make a mark. Therefore, it is this lack of self-identity and the need to belong that push such young people to join cults or radical groups.
Both personality and social factors are very instrumental in determining one’s desire to join a cult or radical group. While there is not a personality type that is likely to join such groups, individual vulnerability factors play a huge role. Certain thought process characteristics can make an individual more susceptible to joining such groups. For example, across many extremist ideologies, there is a low tolerance for ambiguity. Therefore, people who are rigid in their thinking might be prone to joining. According to Horgan (2005), people more open to radicalization tend to; believe that they want to effect real change, feel alienated and angry, identify with people perceived to be victims of social injustice, believe that being part of a movement has its psychological and social rewards. While personality does not play such a huge role, social relationships do. According to Horgan (2005), a common characteristic of most recruits is family disruption. This disruption can cause psychological problems such as low self-esteem. Therefore, when such people find a group who share the same concerns, they are likely to join. Humans are always seeking inclusion across societies. They want to be part of something. Thus when the need to belong is not satisfied in one place, they will seek it elsewhere.
Rejection brings about unhappiness, depression and helplessness. Therefore, radical groups capitalize on this rejection. They promise inclusion, elevation of status, happiness and a sense of purpose. By offering satisfaction and happiness, such groups attract many recruits who might eventually realize that all was not heaven as promised. Affiliation also comes with groups. Groups such as ISIS will not only offer an individual some sense of belonging but also social support, information and assistance. Radical groups and cults also capitalize on injustices committed to people. A person will join a radical group because he is unhappy at a certain act, person, ideology or nation. For example, western teenagers might join ISIS with the perception that it is fighting the alleged oppression of Muslims by western countries in the Middle East (Mullen, 2015). Also, a child whose parents have been killed by a Russian airstrike in Syria might be persuaded to join a radical group that promises vengeance for his family’s death.
Metz et al. (1999) explain the process of joining a radical group by observing that usually people who join such groups are socially alienated people. For example, youths with little education and no jobs might join radical groups due to boredom and the desire for action-packed adventure. Other people are motivated by personal desires in applying their skills such as making bombs. Youths who are more educated and well off might gain their motivation from religious or political convictions such as failed governance systems. Metz et al (1999) personal pathway model model to joining radical groups does not suggest that such individuals have personality flaws, but the circumstances might be responsible. For example, most people joining radical groups are from select population that is at risk, or that has suffered damage to its identity or esteem. As such, the social and political philosophies become entrenched to the members of the society leading to people joining cults or radical organizations.
Technology has advanced at a very fast pace and this has helped radical groups with their recruitment drives. Through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, groups such as ISIS have been successful in recruiting many people. This way, they are able to reach out to individuals who are disaffected globally. Socio-economic factors are also responsible for people joining cults or radical groups. For example, youth in Kenya travel to Somalia to join Al-Shabab on the promise of money. At the same time, marginalized individuals can end up joining groups that make them feel more significant in society.
Both personal and social factors play a part in people joining cults or radical groups. However, the individual factors can be seen to be largely influenced by the social factors prevailing around them. For example, a teenager might lack a sense of self-identity due to a difficult upbringing or the lack of parental involvement at a young age. This explains why young people join violent gangs as a way of finding purpose. Also, personal ideology is greatly influenced by society. It is influenced by religion, ethnicity, statehood, media and education. Therefore, if an individual joins a radical group for personal ideological reasons, it can be said that society shaped the ideology. Researchers note that most of the people who join cults and radical organizations do not have personality flaws, but rather it is the power of these groups in promising a better and meaningful life.
Funder, D. C. (2007). The personality puzzle (4th edition). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Horgan, J. (2005) The Psychology of Terrorism. New York: Routledge.
Metz, H.C., Majesha, M. & Hudson, R.A. (1999) The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? Washington DC: Library of Congress.
Mullen, J. (2015) What is ISIS’ Appeal for Young People? CNN.com, 2015.
Penke, L. (2011) Personality and Social Relationships. European Journal of Personality, 2011: 87-89.

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